Keauhou Bird Conservation Center and Hawai‘i Forest Institute working together to save endemic forest birds on the brink of extinction
We spoke with Bryce Masuda, Conservation Program Manager for the non-profit Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, whose parent organization is the San Diego Zoo Global. The Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program collaborates with the community to conserve and restore Hawaiian plants and animals, with a focus on science, stewardship, and education. The program consists of the ‘Alalā Release and Tracking Team, Keauhou and Maui Endangered Bird Conservation Centers, Palila Release and Tracking Team, and other additional projects. Bryce earned his bachelor’s degree in Biology from Linfield College and his master’s degree from the University of Otago. He currently serves on the ‘Alalā Restoration Working Group, Kauai Forest Bird Working Group, Maui Forest Bird Working Group, and Nēnē Recovery Action Group.
Success in breeding the ‘Alalā in the wild has been in the news recently – how did that happen?
Back in the day there used to be lots of ‘Alalā here on Hawai‘i Island. But in the late 1800s, people started noticing a decline in the population, by the 1940s you couldn’t find any ‘Alalā at lower elevations, and by the 1970s, there were only an estimated 70-80 ‘Alalā left. Many residents started getting worried.
We began helping ‘Alalā in 1993, by first collecting eggs from ‘Alalā nests in the wild, incubating the eggs, and hand-feeding the nestlings after they hatched. When the nestlings were grown up, eating on their own, and independent, we released them into the wild. Our role was to try to “jump-start” the wild population.
We did this for a few years, but it was clear that the ‘Alalā were still disappearing in the wild. So, in 1996, we started helping ‘Alalā more intensively, by taking care of them full-time at our centers where we can provide enough food, security, and shelter, as well as try to create the right conditions for ‘Alalā to breed.
In the mid to late-1990s, there were only an estimated 20 ‘Alalā remaining. ‘Alalā were extremely close to becoming extinct and disappearing forever. In fact, the last time ‘Alalā were seen in the wild was in 2002! And for many years since then, ‘Alalā could only be found at our centers.
How did you turn things around?
Our hard-working team focused on ensuring ‘Alalā were as comfortable as possible, and slowly the population started to increase, and finally, in 2016, we began to release ‘Alalā back into the wild. We’ve been releasing every year since then, and in total, we’ve released 26 ‘Alalā and as of right now there are 19 in the wild.
‘Alalā usually don’t start breeding until they’re three years old. They’re a very intelligent species and they’re monogamous; they pair up for life. They’re also territorial so each pair requires their own space and their own privacy. It’s complicated and difficult to help them breed in an intensive care setting because of all these characteristics It’s our kuleana to protect and restore ‘Alalā, and in the process also restore our natural and cultural heritage.
The good news is that we’ve recently observed the first nest in the wild in about 20 years. They’re now comfortable enough to breed, build nests, and lay eggs in the wild, which is an incredible milestone for ‘Alalā and for our community here in Hawai‘i.
It’s our kuleana to protect and restore ‘Alalā, and in the process also restore our natural and cultural heritage.
Why is it important to save birds like the ‘Alalā?
‘Alalā are a part of Hawai‘i and are not found anywhere else in the world. They’re a part of this place. They’re unique and special. They’re a part of who we are. It’s our kuleana to protect and restore ‘Alalā, and in the process also restore our natural and cultural heritage.
What are some of the things you need to do going forward?
Our plan is to continue to take care of ‘Alalā at our Centers, and release ‘Alalā in the wild. We’re doing everything we can to learn and understand what ‘Alalā need to survive and thrive in the wild.
We need to make sure that there’s enough food in the forest for the ‘Alalā, and we are working with many others in the community to answer questions like: how much food and what types of food do they need in the wild? How can we help restore the forest to ensure that there’s enough food available?
Their diet consists of native fruit such as ‘Olapa, Pukiawe, ʻŌhelo, and Pilo, as well as insects, and the eggs and nestlings of other small birds.
How do you ensure that they have enough food?
Forest restoration is an important aspect of helping ‘Alalā. At our Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, we partner with the Hawai‘i Forest Institute to restore the forest and grow native fruits for ‘Alalā. We plant seedlings with local school children and hand collect fruits to provide to the ‘Alalā at our Center. As much as we can, we give the ‘Alalā native fruits because we want to make sure that they continue to enjoy and remain familiar with these fruits that they would naturally eat in the wild. We add and supplement their diet with non-native fruits too, such as melon, papaya, and apples.
We will continue to take care of ‘Alalā at our Centers and provide them with a comfortable environment where they can successfully produce offspring. And we will continue to release as many ‘Alalā as possible into the wild while continuing to learn about their needs. Over-time, we are hopeful that many will survive and start spreading into different areas.
You have a conservation center on Maui, too. Will you be releasing ‘Alalā there as well?
‘Alalā were most recently observed on Hawai‘i Island. In the past, only fossils of ‘Alalā, or a closely related relative, have been found on Maui. And today, there are only about 125 ‘Alalā alive and the situation is still tenuous. So, for the foreseeable future we plan to focus on releasing ‘Alalā on Hawai‘i Island.
Can you tell me about the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC)?
Since 1996, our Keauhou Bird Conservation Center has helped 16 different native Hawaiian bird species. We take care of birds that are only found here in Hawai‘i with the goal of releasing them into the wild. We have released 442 Nēnē into the wild over many years and today there are over 3,000 Nēnē in the wild, which is an exciting success story.
We’re also taking care of ‘Akikiki, a native forest bird only found on the island of Kaua‘i. There are about 300 left in the wild, but they’re quickly disappearing. ‘Akikiki are projected to become extinct in the wild in the near future, so our role is to take care of them while the threats in the wild are reduced.
What do you do at your centers on Hawai‘i Island and Maui?
Our Centers are the last resort for Hawaiian birds that are near extinction. We’re like an emergency room. You don’t want to go to
the emergency room, and you do so only if you have to. We bring these birds to our centers, take care of them, help them breed, and release them back into the wild when the conditions are more favorable.
With our partners, we’re trying to understand and help fix the threats in the wild, too. For example, if there’s not enough food in the wild for these birds, how do we adequately restore the forest? How do we ensure that they have adequate habitat to thrive over the long-term?
What are the biggest threats to Hawai‘i’s native forest birds?
Hawaiian forest birds face many challenges in the wild. Predation by introduced mammalian predators such as rats, mongoose, and feral cats is a major threat. A second threat is introduced diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox, and the introduced species like mosquitoes that spread these diseases. And inadequate habitat also hinders the survival of Hawaiian birds in the wild. Many Hawaiian forest birds thrive only in habitats with native plants and trees such as ‘Ōhi‘a and Koa. When these forests are destroyed, the birds often don’t survive.
These Hawaiian birds have lived in the native forest for many, many years. The native forest has everything they need to thrive — the insects that they eat, the materials to build their nests, and the places where they sleep. These Hawaiian forests are their home and what they’ve adapted to. On the other hand, invasive plants provide a completely different type of forest that many Hawaiian birds are not adapted to which makes it challenging to survive.
Everything that is unique to these islands, and found only here in the islands, is a part of what makes Hawaii special. Birds that are found only here in Hawai‘i are an important part of this place and a part of us.
What motivates you to do this type of work?
Everything that is unique to these islands, and found only here in the islands, is a part of what makes Hawaii special. Birds that are found only here in Hawai‘i are an important part of this place and a part of us. Being born and raised in the islands, this is my home. So, I feel a responsibility to help the birds – to help all of the endemic (only found in Hawai‘i) plants and animals that are part of Hawai‘i – to thrive. It’s very satisfying for all of us to help ‘Alalā, ‘Akikiki, and other Hawaiian birds to survive and to know that everything we do is focused on helping them thrive.
It’s also satisfying to be part of the community that’s helping birds like the ‘Alalā. All of these milestones are the result of our entire community collaborating and working together. Seeing this passion and enthusiasm from so many of our family, friends, and neighbors gives me a lot of hope for the future.
How dire is the situation for Hawai‘i’s forest birds?
There are many different types of forest birds found here. Endemic forest birds are facing many challenges and are rapidly disappearing from the wild. We’re in a very urgent and serious situation. As a community it is important for us to continue to work together to try to protect and restore these birds. If we don’t do anything to help, they will disappear forever.
How do you see the future?
I’m very optimistic and hopeful for the future of Hawaiian birds. We have hard working and passionate staff and interns. We also work closely with many partners and collaborators, and we have been able to achieve many important milestones together. What also gives me hope for the future is being a part of the community here in Hawaii who want to make a difference. By working together, we can continue to do good things.
How did you get into this field?
For many of us who grow up here, we spend lots of time outside, learning from our families about the world around us. Over time I began realize more and more how special Hawai‘i is, and I especially realized it after I moved away for college. This career was a natural fit because it combines my desire to serve a greater purpose and make a meaningful difference, as well as give back to this place and the community.
Everyone can help Hawaiian birds in so many different ways…
What are some of the ways that people can help?
Everyone can help Hawaiian birds in so many different ways. Planting native plants makes a big difference. Native plants can be planted in your own yard. Or join organizations across Hawaii that have community work days. Removing invasive weeds is also very important. We can also continue to learn more about our home, wherever you live in the world. For example, which plants are endemic and found only in Hawai‘i? Which plants are weeds and invasive? And share your knowledge and enthusiasm for what you’re learning. There are many special and unique species found all over the world, and it is important for us to ensure that they thrive for many generations to come.
About the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC)
For over 20 years, the KBCC has been saving critically endangered Hawaiian birds from extinction and restoring these species in the wild. This work has been done primarily using conservation breeding and reintroduction as management techniques. Birds currently being cared for at the KBCC are the ‘Alalā, ‘Akikiki, Palila, Kiwikiu, ‘Akeke‘e, and Puaiohi. The KBCC is part of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, which is part of the San Diego Zoo Global. Saving species at the KBCC is done together in partnership with many in the community such as the Hawai‘i Forest Institute, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Kamehameha Schools, Three Mountain Alliance, U.S. Geological Survey, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Kupu Hawai‘i, Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, Hawaiian Airlines, and many others.
About the KBCC Discovery Forest
The KBCC Discovery Forest provides service-learning opportunities for volunteers and habitat and food for native birds. > More